More than two decades ago, in 1987, Compuserv developed the Graphics Interface Format, a file that allows users with incompatible PCs to exchange pictures. They dubbed it the GIF, pronounced with a soft-g, like Jif, the peanut butter. Since then, as the animated GIF has become a mainstay of Internet culture, GIF creators and watchers alike have debated the term's pronunciation. To some, a soft-g sound just doesn't make sense: The 'g' stands for 'graphic,' which nobody would deny, takes the hard-g sound. Shouldn't an acronym reflect the words it represents? Thus a hard-g should prevail; but that's not what its creators intended. So, which is it: GIF like a present or GIF like the lube?
"It's embarrassing because you don't know if it's Mr. Gick or Mr. Jick," lamented William Labov, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. As Dr. Labov explained, in modern English, no hard and fast rule exists for the 'gi' combination. Some words take the hard sound, others take the soft sound -- it depends on the word's specific history. Compare gift and gin, for example -- same 'gi' combination, different 'gi' sound.
The divergence emerged because modern English pronunciation reflects a mixture of dialects. In Old English the g had two pronunciations: one with a 'j' sound, and the other with a 'y' sound. When 'g' proceeded 'i,' it would take the 'y' sound. No hard 'gi' sound existed until Scandinavians migrated to England, bringing the hard variant with them. As the dialects mixed, certain pronunciations, both hard and soft, stuck.